FAYETTEVILLE – Since the NCAA for the first time cancelled all sports’ practices on Election Day so athletes and coaches can go vote, Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman and his staff set for a Tuesday evaluating film of the Tennessee Volunteers.
Arkansas, 2-3 coming off Saturday’s 42-31 SEC West loss at now nationally No. 7 Texas A&M, and Coach Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols of the SEC East, 2-3 with last weekend’s open date buffering consecutive losses at No. 5 Georgia and in their Knoxville, Tenn. home to Kentucky and No. 2 Alabama, kick off at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on the SEC Network.
The 34-7 loss to Kentucky plunged the Vols to their performance nadir. But they opened impressively winning 31-27 at South Carolina and beating Missouri, 35-12 in Knoxville. Other than against Kentucky, the Vols’ offensive line has netted praise.
“They have a very talented offensive line, a huge offensive line,” Pittman said. “They have a really good back in (Eric) Gray. Actually they have two with him and (Ty) Chandler. And (senior quarterback Jarrett) Guarantano is a veteran guy. He’s played in 39 games there at Tennessee, so a veteran quarterback. (Josh) Palmer is one of the leading receivers they have, along with (Velus) Jones and (Ramel) Keyton.”
Gray and Chandler average 4.5 and 4.4 per carry behind an offensive line from left tackle to right tackle listed at 6-5, 320, 6-6, 330, 6-3, 300, 6-6, 320 and 6-6, 330.
Senior every game starting left guard Trey Smith has not allowed a sack since 2018.
Palmer (19 receptions for 295 and four touchdowns), Brandon Johnson (13 for 155 yards) and Gray (16 for 123 with a touchdown) statistically lead Tennessee’s receivers.
Guarantano has completed 83 of 135 for 914 yards with six touchdowns vs. three interceptions.
“They’re an SEC-looking defense,” Pittman said. “They’re big. Their front three —their front three with (Matthew) Butler, (Aubrey) Solomon and (Latrell) Bumphas are very talented kids that can run. I think the key to their defense is Henry To’o To’o. He’s as good a linebacker as there is in the SEC and probably the nation. On the back end, they’re very physical. They can cover.”
Defensive back Trevon Flowers leads the Vols tacklers (35) with two for losses and has broken up two passes and forced a fumble.
Arkansas’ defense had drawn rave reviews its first four games but Pittman said Texas A&M exposed Arkansas flaws in College Station.
“We didn’t tackle well,” Pittman said. “As the game wore on I thought our tackling was worse.”
Pittman said game film revealed defensive positives.
“I did think that our D-line played better than what I was thinking during the game,” Pittman said. “I thought (junior college transfer) Julius Coates had his best game. And of course (senior tackle and defensive co-captain) Jon Marshall is a guy that we certainly can count on.”
Offensively, senior running back Rakeem Boyd, with a 100 yards rushing on 18 carries performance akin to his five times netting 100 yards or better last year and three times in 2018, showed he’s healthy for the first time since injured during the season’s second game in the 21-14 victory at Mississippi State.
“I think Rakeem is just going to get better and better each week,” Pittman said. “He’s healthy now. I loved his attitude and how hard he ran.”
Given that Chad Morris’ 0-8, 0-8 in the SEC Razorbacks of 2018 and 2019 continually played a bad game of quarterback roulette, it seems hard to find fault with via Florida Gators grad transfer Feleipe Franks. Franks sports 11 touchdowns vs. three interceptions and completed 66 percent of his passes netting 1,293 yards in five games and even rushed 91 yards vs. Texas A&M.
But “I think he’s holding the ball a little too long” Pittman conceded during Monday’s press conference.
“There’s situations where you certainly don’t want to take a sack,” Pittman said. “But I’m more concerned about him taking hits. He’s waiting on his receivers. Anytime a quarterback’s holding the ball, that means, one good thing, the protection’s pretty good. And another bad thing, we’re not getting open. We’ve got to get open, and he’s got to see his reads probably a little bit faster. But I’m not going to say I’m disappointed in the way he’s played because he’s playing pretty good. He’s tough.”
Franks willingly takes a hit if it means extra time for receiver Treylon Burks (26 catches for 366 yards and four touchdowns in four games) to get open.
Because of Tuesday’s off day, the Razorbacks practiced Monday in full pads and resume drills Wednesday in full pads.